The remote Halmahera island, also called Gilolo or Jailolo, is the largest island in Maluku (the Moluccas), K-shaped almost like a miniature Sulawesi. With white sandy beaches, unspoiled forests and the spectacular Mt Mamuya in the distance, this island offers stunning scenery. This is a rugged and mountainous landscape and much of the island is still covered in forest.
While the island covers an enormous area of over 17,000 square kilometers, it is sparsely populated. This island is the core of a larger region, called Moro that includes the island and the coastline of Halmahera, and is closest to Morotai to the north.
During the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, Halmahera was largely under the dominion of the powerful sultanate of Ternate. In the mid-sixteenth century, the island was the site of a Portuguese Jesuit mission, most noted of whom was St. Francis Xavier (known here as St. Franciscus Xaverius). The Muslim states on Ternate and Halmahera rejected Christianity, and managed to drive the mission away from the island in 1571. However its influence remains evident as today half the population is Muslim and half are Christian.
In the seventeenth century, Ternate further exerted its power over Morotai by repeatedly forcing major parts of the population to migrate from the island.
Halmahera had an important role during World War II. It was here that the Americans started their allied invasions against the occupied Philippines and South Pacific Islands. General McArthur resided on a small island close to Daruba where he planned and coordinated countless air strikes, sea invasions and counter-attacks against the Japanese. The American Daruba Airfield has seven runways and can still be sighted today. Due to the enormous amount of explosives, ammunition and guns still found in the shallow waters, the island remains out of bounds for divers. Only designated surveyors dive here.
It’s easy to find some decent restaurants or warungs on this island around Town Centre and Dufa-dufa Street which will be sure to satisfy your appetite.
You can also taste some special delicacies of Halmahera Island, such as Halua, Boboko, Lapis Tidore, Kue Bilolo, Mam Raka and Popeda.
There are limited souvenirs available to buy in Halmahera. Shields (salawako) and swords (kalewang) are interesting cultural pieces, although they are made especially for Cakalele Dance, the local staged war dance and art performance. You’re best chance of finding souvenirs is in Tobelo where there is a small souvenir shop in Jalan Bhayangkara, 2nd floor, Hibualamo, Tobelo.
There are several good and affordable hotels in Gilolo, Tobelo, Galela, Kao, Sidangoli, Buli, Saketa, and Weda. Away from these places, you might need to stay with local people in village. The facilities are very basic, although the hospitality can be very good.
Just south of Morotai, several Second World War wrecks can be explored in Tobelo Bay. These sites are really off the beaten track, so you’ll need to come here with a spirit for adventure. The unchartered territory here creates a “Robinson Crusoe” atmosphere, as there are absolutely no signs of humans, just beautiful coral islands and natural forests.
The most popular activities on the island involve exploring its beautiful waters. Surf at Dorume Beach, known for its huge waves, especially in December; which is the best time for surfers to visit. Along with it’s massive surf, the attraction here is the very fine sands of the beach that seem to glitter in the sun as they contain metallic grains. Take in the scenery at the peaceful Telaga Biru, which literally means Blue Lake. This is a small natural pond with crystal-clear water, located near Mamuya village in Galela district. According to local legend, a long time ago fairies would descend from heaven to bathe here. Intriguingly, every single leaf falling into this pond from the surrounding trees always drifts to its shores, leaving the waters clear and translucent.
Dodola Island is surrounded by extensive white sandy beaches, which actually connect the neighboring islands of Dodola Besar and Dodola Kecil (Besar is Indonesian for large, and Kecil means small). The beautiful natural surrounds and clear waters make it a great spot for swimming, diving, snorkeling, and just simply relaxing. Dodola is also of some historical interest. During World War II, General McArthur and his forces often visited here for recreation.
Kupakupa beach is ideal for canoeing, swimming and fishing.
Batu Kopi, literally meaning Coffee Rock, is situated at Posiposi-Rao Beach in the South-West Morotai district. The name comes from local folklore, as it’s claimed that an aroma of coffee comes from this rock. Usually this aroma can be smelled towards the late afternoon. Here you can also swim, surf, dive, and take ride on a boat. For those who are interested in surfing, November and December are the ideal months to visit.
Kakara Island has the oldest Hibualamo (the big house or the village hall) around Tobelo, and is considered the cradle of Tobelorese culture.
Go back in time and explore history with a visit to the World War II Japanese Tunnels. Located in the villages of Samuda and Duma in West Galela District, these tunnels were used as hiding places by the Japanese Military in World War II. The one in Samuda is 20 meters long and has several chambers that are thought to have been used as meeting halls.
Visit the Kao bunkers and cannons and learn about the Japanese occupation of Kao during World War II. There are many relics of the war around the city, notably around Kuabang Airport. Here there are several bunkers and four cannons, which are still in good condition. The biggest bunker, with two halls and 15 meters long corridor, can be found near the runway. The runway itself was built by the Japanese military, and is now one of the most important airport facilities in North Halmahera.
For a combination of natural and historical attractions visit Sosol Beach and Tosimaru Shipwreck. The long black-sandy beach is free from strong currents so it’s a great place to relax and cool off with a swim. While you are here, look at the wreck of Tosimaru, a World War II Japanese cargo ship, which is visible from far away.
Stare into the rim of one of Indonesia’s most active volcano’s. The awe inspiring Mount Dukono is one of three active volcanoes on Halmahera Island and one of the most active ones in all of Indonesia. Test your endurance and climb this mountain which still spews with smoke. The climb up the mountain is usually begun from Mamuya village. There you will find a volcano post, which can provide up-to-date information about the current state of the volcano. It is also possible to ride a motorbike to the slopes of the mountain. From there, you will have to walk for about 2 hours through primary forest and cross several ravines until finally reaching the lahar (cold lava) fields surrounding the crater of Dukono. Here you will find a camping spot for those who want to spend the night on the volcano. From the camping spot, the crater is only one-hour walk away.
Diving in the pristine waters amongst the tropical fish here is a remarkable experience. Some of the most popular dive sites include: Somola Bay is where you will find small islands, which offer blue seawaters and mangrove trees growing on stones. In this area, tourists can go canoeing while enjoying the beautiful Somola landscape. This beautiful area can be reached with the ship from Pune Beach, Galela District.
Tagalaya Island is one of the islands located up front from Tobelo Town. The water is calm and crystal clear, and a white-sand beach surrounds the entire island. Coral reefs rich with marine life are found at a depth of 2-10 meters off the coast of Tagalaya. Mangroves grow out of white sand and surrounded by the corals, make diving here a unique experience. You can also watch the locals fishing here.
Tobotobo Sea Garden is located in Toboto village, Loloda District and is an ideal place for both snorkeling or diving. Tobotobo also has thousands of bats thanging from mangroves trees and also white and blue pigeon’s bath place.
Rorangane Island is one of the uninhabited islands of North Halmahera, located just 15 minutes from Tobelo harbor. Similar to Tagalaya, the water is calm and crystal clear. White sand beaches surround the entire island. Besides offering good swimming spots, the coral reefs, at a depth of 10-30 meters, make it an ideal location for diving.
Bemo (a motorized becak / rickshaw), mikrolet (blue minibuses), bentor (motorbike driven vehicle), ojek, and becak are all common land transportation on Halmahera Island.
There are a number of ways to reach Halmahera Island.
By air : Lion Air and Citilink Airlines serve a direct flight from Jakarta – Makassar (transit city) – Ternate. Halmahera does not have any sizeable airports. Most air traffic comes through the provincial capital airport of Sultan Babullah Airport on Ternate Island. You can take a short hop from here to Galela Airport on Halmahera Island near Tobelo.
By boat : There are cruise liners that visit Halmahera. PELNI serves several alternatives: KM Lambelu, KM Sinabung, KM Dorolanda and KM Ngapulu, cruise to Ternate twice a month. These liners will transit in several towns such as Semarang (Central Java), Surabaya (East Java), Makassar (South Sulawesi) and Bitung (North Sulawesi). Then, you can continue your trip by speedboat to Kota Baru for about 45 minutes, or you can get on a ferry from Bastiong Ferry Harbor, which will take two hours. Both of them will lead you to Sofifi (Halmahera).
b. Departing from Surabaya
Lion Air or Express Air serves direct flights from Surabaya – Makassar (transit city) – Ternate, which will take about 4 hours. Then, you can take a short hop to Galela Airport on Halmahera Island.
As the PELNI liners will transit in several towns, you can get on the liners from Surabaya (East Java) for a four-day cruise, shorter than Jakarta route. Afterwards, you can get on a ferry from Bastiong Ferry Harbor, which will lead you to Sofifi (Halmahera).
c. Departing from Makassar
Lion Air Airlines or Express Air and Trigana Air will lead you to Ternate by its direct flight, which will take only 2 hours. Take a short hop to Galela Airport on Halmahera Island.
From Makassar to Ternate, it will take three days by PELNI liners.
Wings Air has direct flights from Manado to Kao twice a week on Monday and Friday. Disembarking in Kao means that you have already arrived in North Halmahera. To reach Kao – Tobelo (the capital city); it takes one hour by car.
For cruise liners, KM Elizabeth III departs every Monday. The cruise will take about 15 hours.
North Halmahera Tourism Information Center (TIC), Jl. Bhayangkara, Tobelo. Diving Center is in Pulau Kakara.
If you plan to dive, the best time to visit is during the dry season, which is usually from May to October. For surfing, the best time is November and December, when the waves are at their highest points.
If you decide to stay in with the locals, be sure to bring in a guide or a friend who speaks in fluent Indonesian as only few people here can speak English well.